Ever since I read Champion Dog, Prince Tom in second grade, I have been besotted with books. I became partial to fiction during the week I spent following the progress of Prince from frisky pup to disciplined show dog, but it’s not just fiction I delight in. I remain in awe of a writer’s ability – in fiction, non-fiction or memoir – to sustain a tale, or an idea, beyond a page. Once, in graduate school, I wrote a 28-page paper (too short to be deemed a “thesis”). I extracted these pages from my addled brain as one extracts blood and other fluids from stone. I submitted it, and the work was bound (perhaps gagged) and placed on a shelf in the basement of Colorado State’s library. This basement was promptly demolished in a flood. I myself, was flooded with a sensation something like relief. Now I play it safe and short; I have ideas, but they are small ones. I have never constructed a lengthy or lofty structure out of them and I remain deeply impressed by writers who craft sturdy, sustained literary architectures.
But in spite of being drawn to the arrangement of Claire Dederer’s memoir of motherhood and yoga, I began her story with scepticism. As Elizabeth Gilbert (herself the creator of an ingeniously structured memoir) wrote in her review, “Yoga sometimes makes people talk like jerks.” But Claire Dederer, as Gilbert notes, is not jerky, but funny, searching and vulnerable. She evokes the 1970’s vibe of her Seattle childhood, reconstructing the aftermath of her parents’ split. She efficiently and poignantly sets up the idyll of her early years: “Our dads were at work, working. Our moms were at home, smoking. Our brothers were in the woods, looking at waterlogged porn. We thought it would be like this forever.” Then she chronicles the years after her dad moved out, interspersed with those of her own marriage and time as a novice in motherhood and yoga. She fashions her life story around 23 poses and this works, at times brilliantly, at times awkwardly.
She comes to yoga while in the fog of caring for her baby daughter, a role that proves draining, especially in the parenting climate of Dederer’s peers. The daily grind of attempting to be the perfect mother leaves her longing for something self-creating, not procreating, so she attends her first yoga class. Her exploration of yogic texts didn’t constitute my favorite portions of the book, but I think much of the potential audience for this book will care about the origins of the various forms of yoga and besides, it’s non-fiction, which means permission to skim.
The structure of this story is ambitious, perhaps overly so, and is not seamlessly executed. Two thirds of the way through (the seventh inning sag I see so often) she seems to lose her way. This aimlessness might be intended metaphorically, as a reflection of her own lost state, but it is somewhat trying for the reader. However, much of the writing is humorous and relatable. And it is not the imperfections of this book that remained with me but rather, the many small perfections. Behold: “Submission, trust, transmission from teacher to student, imperfection, the release of the ego — these were the things that would save me from myself, even if they were as unfamiliar as Krishna with his blue face. You can’t go deeper and know what you’re doing the whole time.” In marriage, motherhood, yoga, in so much of life, you dive in and sink down into the unknown. A posture of caution gets you somewhere but a pose of abandon, somewhere else entirely.